Picnic ideas for a mess-free family picnic

A picnic offers a simple getaway on a nice summer day. These packing tips and picnic food ideas can help you create a stress-free, mess-free day out with your baby or children.

Big vacations and road trips are great…but sometimes you have those lazy weekends where you want to take your time getting out of your PJs and you’re just not up for a lot of planning. If the weather is right, it could be the perfect time for a picnic. A picnic gives an excuse to get away from the house for the day, commune with nature, and spend time enjoying family. I’ve had a couple of those days recently and learned many lessons.

One Saturday while my best friend was in town from Florida, we decided to get out of the house, but we were a bit worn out from larger excursions the day before. So we packed a bag and a cooler and drove to the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., a 1,700-acre “outdoor museum of trees” west of Chicago. Given the sheer size of the arboretum, we had many options for a picnic spot, from the very busy welcome area and visitor center to quiet lakes, creeks, woods, and more. We chose a more private spot under a large tree beside a lake. The upside was, it really was private and baby loved all the plants around us. The downside was, that private spot was a bit rocky and muddy, so we were pretty confined to our little blanket.

The best picnic foods are enjoyed on a blanket with family.

Picnics can offer chances to take simple day trips away from home to relax and enjoy family. (Photo credit: Jackie Gibson/TravelingMom With Babies)

On another random Saturday, the hubby and I had some time to kill before our nephew’s soccer game in Schaumburg, Ill. So we packed baby into the car, stopped for a few sandwiches, and made our way to the lovely Busse Woods (Ned Brown Preserve) in Schaumburg, a 3,558-acre park with a lake and bike path. After a very long walk exploring all possible picnic spots, from melt-in-the-sun open lawn to crowded areas with picnic tables, we decided (again) on a shaded spot under a tree by the lake. This time the spot was flat and dry, though the sun was so hot we still needed to keep baby on the blanket and out of the harmful rays.

Morton Arboretum offers great places to enjoy time with family and the best picnic foods.

Busse Woods offers picnic spots, bike paths, fishing, and other opportunities to relax and enjoy nature. (Photo credit: Jackie Gibson/TravelingMom With Babies)

In both cases, I discovered that some foods were easier to manage than others. And while it’s important pack enough to be prepared, there may not be a lot of dry space to put all your stuff when you get there.


Best Picnic Foods with Kids

The key is to keep it simple. You have a kid with you. That’s enough work. You don’t need to be dealing with messy fingers, fumbling with Tupperware or cleaning up spills on your day out. Consider these tips:

  1. Go for things you can easily unpack and clean up—sandwiches are super easy. And if you don’t have time to make fancy sandwiches while chasing the baby around the kitchen, stop at Subway.
  2. Pick snacks that don’t create messy fingers—think plain chips over cheese popcorn, trail mix over chocolate.
  3. Choose items that don’t require silverware—think soup in a mug for chillier days or finger foods that can be pulled out of Ziploc bags. For baby (if she’s at that point), go for the Cheerios instead of the pureed vegetables. While plastic silverware sounds easy, you may end up dropping them in the dirt or fumbling them while holding baby.
  4. Grab fruits that you won’t mind leaving on the blanket half-eaten—bananas are a lot less messy than peaches with sloppy cores.
  5. Pack bottled drinks only—bugs crawl in cans and hide, and soft drink cups with straws can tip and leak.
Take bottles and Ziplocs to keep the best picnic foods from spilling and creating a mess.

Bottles and Ziploc bags are ideal when eating and drinking on a small blanket. (Photo credit: Jackie Gibson/TravelingMom With Babies)

Complete Packing List

This list will look long considering you won’t have many places to put the items when you get there. But remember you can hide some items in the stroller (see: toys) or have others on hand in the car (see: First Aid Kit). Remember to check the weather, but be prepared anyway as it can always change.

To eat:

  • Sandwiches in Ziploc bags
  • Bag of chips, popcorn, or trail mix
  • Bananas
  • Other (not messy) snacks that fit in Ziplog bags such as cookies or grapes
  • Bottled water
  • Cheerios for baby
  • Bottles with formula (if formula fed)

To keep everyone happy:

  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray
  • Umbrella (for sun or rain)
  • Layered clothing
  • Hats
  • Sunglasses
  • Shoes
  • Hand wipes

For baby:

  • Carrier or stroller (depending on the terrain)
  • Diapers and baby wipes
  • Changing pad
  • Change of clothes (you never know)
  • Baby shoes (in case of mosquitos or rocks)
  • Baby hat
  • Tiny toys (to keep baby happy and keep her on the blanket)
Picnic ideas should include shoes and hats to keep baby's feet and head protected.

Bring baby shoes if you’re concerned about rocks or bugs. (Photo credit: Jackie Gibson/TravelingMom With Babies)



  • Large blanket or tarp
  • Plastic bag for garbage
  • Camera
  • First Aid Kit
  • Bag to pack in that can get dirty or be set in dirt/grass (because not everything will fit on the blanket)
  • Cooler with ice packs for any cold food items until you’re ready to eat
  • Map of the park (if it’s large or you’re new to the area)

What foods do you recommend for a picnic? What would you pack?

Jackie Gibson is a nonprofit marketing director and freelance writer. She is also Mommy to an energetic (gorgeous genius) baby and is loving her chaotic but sappy sweet life.